2,114 seizures of endangered animals and timber in major international law enforcement operation

12 December 2023
Wildlife and forestry crime are emerging as key elements of transnational organized crime and a serious threat to global security

LYON, France -- Endangered animals including elephants, rhinos and pangolins, as well as protected timber, particularly tropical hardwoods, have been seized in a joint INTERPOL - World Customs Organization (WCO) operation to stop wildlife and timber trafficking.

From 2 – 27 October, customs and police officers coordinated some 500 arrests worldwide and more than 2,000 confiscations of animals and plants that are protected under the : Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) due to their threatened status. Any trade performed in breach of CITES is illegal.

The global operation, named Operation Thunder, involved police, customs, border control, environment, wildlife and forestry officials in 133 countries who worked together across borders. This marked the highest participation rate in Operation Thunder since the annual law enforcement campaign was launched in 2017.

Among the 2,114 seizures were more than 300kg of ivory, thousands of turtle eggs, 30 tonnes of plants, dozens of big cat body parts and rhino horns, as well as primates, birds and marine species.

Authorities also confiscated 2,624 cubic metres of timber which is equivalent to 440 standard shipping containers.

Czech Republic authorities intercept the smuggling of two golden handed tamarins
Brazilian authorities discover eggs of CITES-protected species smuggled in a passenger’s luggage.
Hundreds of parcels, suitcases, vehicles, boats and cargo transporters were examined as they are often used to conceal wildlife species like this turtle seized in Thailand
Customs and police confiscated over 2,000 CITES-protected animals and plants during Operation Thunder 2023, including this Pangolin in Botswana.
Brazil's targeted controls: dozens of timber plants were inspected during Operation Thunder 2023
A total of 1,370 live birds – such as these CITES-listed psittacines intercepted by Indian authorities – were seized during Operation Thunder 2023
A sample of protected species body parts (horns) intercepted in Argentina during Operation Thunder 2023
Seizures during Operation Thunder 2023 varied from timber to live animals and their derivatives such as these taxidermy specimens confiscated in Argentina
Two CITES-protected Capped Langur primates were intercepted by Bangladesh authorities during Operation Thunder 2023
Eggs of CITES-protected species are seized by Bolivian border authorities during Operation Thunder 2023
53 live primates – such as this monkey detected at a Bolivian border – were rescued during Operation Thunder 2023
A timber and logging plant in Brazil is inspected as part of Thunder 2023 global operations.
Brazil’s targeted controls: dozens of timber plants were inspected during Operation Thunder 2023

Although Operation Thunder 2023 results are still coming in, initial data has enabled police and customs to identify some clear trends:

  • 60 per cent of wildlife trafficking cases were linked to transnational organized crime groups, operating along routes also known for smuggling other illegal products.
  • Protected reptiles and marine life are being exploited for luxury brand fashion.
  • Online sales platforms are still being used to sell wildlife, timber and marine goods.
  • Illegal and legal timber are blended for transport to make it difficult to detect illegally logged wood.
  • Transnational organized crime groups resort to high levels of document fraud, particularly the use of forged certifications and CITES permits and permit reuse.

INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock said:

“Important and endangered animals, birds and plants are being put at risk of extinction by wildlife and timber traffickers. These appalling crimes not only deprive the world of unique animals and plants but also countries of their natural assets and resources.

“The costs to communities are even greater, because as this Operation shows, almost all environmental crime has links to other forms of crime including violence, corruption and financial crime, but also has strong links to transnational organized crimes groups.

“As the world grapples with the devastating consequences of environmental degradation and species extinction, INTERPOL and WCO are emerging as leaders in safeguarding biodiversity and world security.”

WCO Secretary General Dr Kunio Mikuriya said:

“As part of a comprehensive strategy, customs plays a pivotal role in disrupting criminal networks involved in the illegal wildlife trade. This is achieved by enforcing strict controls at borders, effectively closing off avenues for exploitation and financial gain available to traffickers.”

“At the forefront of this strategy, customs employs intelligence-sharing, championing collaboration, and adopting technological advancements. These measures are crucial to stay one step ahead of criminals, thereby ensuring that customs’ contribution to combating wildlife crime is dynamic, responsive and adaptive.”

Indonesian authorities intercept protected bird species concealed for travel in cardboard boxes
Brunei rangers inspect protected tree species during Operation Thunder 2023 where 2,624 cubic metres of timber were seized globally.
Protected cactus species seized during the Canadian leg of Operation Thunder 2023
Canadian authorities seized a set of statues made from protected timber
Indonesia: searches at land and air border checkpoints focused on illegally traded species protected by national legislation or CITES
Indonesian authorities intercepted a wide range of protected bird species during Operation Thunder 2023
Authorities confiscated 2,624 cubic metres of timber during Operation Thunder 2023, such as here in Indonesia
Dik Dik antelope carcasses intercepted by the Kenya Wildlife Service
A live Pangolin is seized by Mozambican border authorities
Panama rangers inspect protected tree species during Operation Thunder 2023
Portuguese authorities inspect a pet shop whose owner is suspected of engaging in the illegal sale of protected species
Seizure in Tanzania of a leopard skin and elephant tusks

INTERPOL and the WCO shared intelligence, coordinated investigations and pooled their resources to enable frontline police and customs officers to target, identify and arrest traffickers, including those operating online, as they tried to smuggle animals or timber across borders.   

Known traffickers wanted through INTERPOL’s Red Notice alert system were identified ahead of operations and were subsequently targeted when crossing borders.

Hundreds of vehicles, including cars, trucks, and cargo ships, were searched at checkpoints across all regions. Specialized sniffer dogs and X-ray scanners were deployed to detect hidden wildlife and camouflaged timber shipments. Hundreds of parcels, suitcases, vehicles, boats and cargo transporters were examined as they are often used to conceal transported wildlife species.

CITES Secretary General Ivonne Higuero said:

“The results of Operation Thunder 2023 again show that strong and coordinated responses between parties are crucial to tackle transnational criminal networks involved in wildlife crime.

“Well targeted, unified and coordinated efforts such as those mobilized through this global operation are exactly what is needed to overcome the threat posed by wildlife crime.”

Notes to editors

Now in its seventh year, Operation Thunder is a joint operation coordinated annually by INTERPOL and the WCO with the backing of CITES and the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime.

Thunder operations are funded by the European Commission’s Directorate General for International Partnerships, Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative, the US Agency for International Development, the US Forestry Service and the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Operation Thunder 2023 coincides with the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference - Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP28) which ends today after high level discussions on how to address pressing environmental challenges characterized by climate change and biodiversity loss.